When John Rourke arrives Thursday in Baltimore with a team of sanitation workers from Florida and New York, he won’t have to look far to find trash to collect and vacant lots to clear. The trash hauler was inspired to tidy up the city after President Donald Trump criticized it as a place where “no human being would want to live.”
Derwin Hannah welcomes the help. He said litter piles higher now than at any point in the 23 years he has lived in Southwest Baltimore, and he can only do so much as he organizes regular block cleanups in his Carrollton Ridge neighborhood.
Hannah doesn’t blame Trump for pillorying the city’s grime in tweets and rally speeches, though the president angered many of Baltimore’s biggest boosters.
“They may not like what he said or the way it was put out there, but there’s a lot of truth to it,” Hannah said. “There’s a lot of trash in Baltimore. We’ve got to realize we can do better.”
But others see such outside help as more of a criticism than a favor — as if Baltimoreans were unaware of a trash problem, or ignoring it.
“Maybe from the outside, there’s not enough being done,” said Alice Volpitta, lead water quality scientist with Blue Water Baltimore, an advocacy group focused on cleaning streams and rivers. “That’s just not true. There’s no magic wand to wave and there are real people doing real work to solve these problems, but it takes time.”
As Trump’s tweets last month continue to reverberate in Baltimore, some residents say the negative attention overlooks persistent and ongoing efforts to beautify blocks and deter litterbugs. Public data show the increased attention on the city’s cleanliness actually comes amid a yearslong surge in reporting of illegal dumping and enforcement actions against it.
The problem remains intractable because of the city’s long history of discrimination and disinvestment, and won’t be solved by some outsiders with garbage trucks, they say.
That doesn’t mean the assistance isn’t appreciated, though — nor does it deter Rourke.
“It has to start somewhere,” he said. “I’m a garbageman, and there’s a garbage problem. That’s a problem that we can fix.”
Baltimore’s public works crews collect some 150,000 tons of garbage from homes in regular pickups each year, but that isn’t enough to rid city streets of trash. An estimated 10,000 tons of trash are illegally dumped on alleys, streets and sidewalks every year, according to an annual city report.
That has long prompted regular cleanup efforts in many city neighborhoods.
In Carrollton Ridge, Hannah said he will eagerly take anyone offering help around the neighborhood. He only wishes more of them came from inside the neighborhood.
In the Pen Lucy area of North Baltimore, neighborhood kids have been gathering every Saturday for the past seven years to pick up trash with a group Dawod Thomas calls My Father’s Plan. He started hiring the youths with money from his shop, the Store at Your Door Boutique, but the effort grew enough that he incorporated the group as a nonprofit that received a neighborhood beautification grant from the city.
Thomas said the $25 or $50 stipends is helping to spur youths to act, but also to feel more ownership of their community. The problem, he worries, is that the years of dumping and neglect has affected the way residents feel about their own neighborhoods. If residents visit Towson or Glen Burnie, they would never litter, he said, but in Pen Lucy or other parts of the city, they don’t think twice about doing it. He hopes to change that.
“Baltimore City residents don’t feel a sense of value in their community,” Thomas said. “We don’t see value in our own neighborhoods.”
In the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello area of Northeast Baltimore, residents worked a pickup truck so hard doing weekly sweeps for alley dumping, it recently broke down beyond repair, said Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp. They routinely come across piles of trash bags and mattresses, but also have encountered stranger debris — once, a tanning bed; another time, an abandoned truck filled with garbage.
Much of that debris comes from outside the neighborhoods it ends up in, if not outside the city altogether. And it’s a problem in a wide swath of neighborhoods, though it’s especially concentrated in parts of Southwest Baltimore and in East and Northeast Baltimore.
Jason Hessler, Baltimore’s deputy housing commissioner for permits and litigation, said it’s most common in areas close to highways, construction projects or garbage dumps. His agency is responsible for prosecuting illegal dumping, and he said many of the offenders simply choose to empty their trucks where they think they won’t be noticed because they got turned away from a dump or because they want to avoid paying tipping fees.
Data shows awareness of and concern about illegal dumping is growing in the city.
And enforcement is also improving. Records posted on the city’s Open Baltimore website show that code enforcers issued a few hundred dumping citations each year from around 2010 through 2013. But since then, citations have increased dramatically.
The city issued 1,148 dumping citations in fiscal year 2018, fining violators anywhere from $50 to $30,000, according to an annual report. The more than 500 issued so far in 2019 is on par with the number of dumping citations issued in all of 2014, according to the Open Baltimore data.
Still, while Hessler said repeat offenders are rare, the dumping hasn’t slowed.
Washington said it’s a constant drag on his neighborhood.
“It is one of the most egregious acts someone can do to a community,” he said. “It just makes people feel depressed about where they live.”
Those like Rourke say they’re just trying to do what they can to address that. His group is just the latest to visit the city since Trump’s tweets in late July, many of them spurred by Scott Presler, a Republican activist from Northern Virginia who started a social media campaign to help clean the city.
“I’m a garbageman, and there’s a garbage problem. That’s a problem that we can fix.”
Rourke emphasized that his action isn’t political, and his team includes both Democrats and Republicans. The Army veteran from Jupiter, Florida, said he was so astonished by images of Baltimore in the news, he simply felt he had to act.
“It looked worse than Iraq and I was there for a year. It was worse than Mosul," he said. “You can’t get out of a bad situation if you don’t have people to help. Government money can only do so much.”
While he acknowledged that he couldn’t solve the city’s problems, he said he hoped to be part of a start to a solution. And there were quickly signs he isn’t the only one.
What started as a group of eight friends has snowballed on social media. City public works officials helped him identify blocks in the Easterwood area of West Baltimore to target. One woman donated 30,000 Black-Eyed Susan seeds to plant in its vacant lots. And he’s received pledges of support from sports teams at Loyola Blakefield prep school and from Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and City Council President Brandon Scott.
When the group pulls up in Easterwood on Thursday morning, Rourke said he expects as many as 200 volunteers to join them.
Baltimore Sun reporter McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.